Sofia Stories: Twenty stotinki a tinkle in brave new Bulgaria

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The Independent Online

No one really cared that the beer was in plastic glasses, not steins. The Oktoberfest had come to Sofia in May, complete with oompah band, lads in lederhosen, damsels in dirndls and a vast marquee - and the good burghers of Sofia were swilling down the novelty of being "new Europeans" with the best of them.

But there was something not quite right about this cheerful scene. Surely, the vast empty square behind the Bavarian tent had not always looked so spacious ...

If you had taken a tour of central Sofia some 15 years ago, as I had done, it would have started at the marble mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, communist Bulgaria's first leader and a man with an extraordinary career behind him which included being tried, and acquitted, for setting fire to the Reichstag in Berlin in 1933. Having paid your respects to Dimitrov, you would have continued past the massive Communist Party buildings to Lenin Square, where Vladimir Ilyich stood on a high plinth in full taxi-hailing mode.

Outside the communist pantheon, only Cyril and Methodius warranted mention as the scholar-saints who had devised the Cyrillic alphabet and taken Christianity to the Russians up north. But the two saints are pretty much the only familiar names to have passed unscathed from 20th-century Sofia into the city of today. Otherwise, it is as though the 45 years between the end of the Second World War and what is known as "the transformation" hardly happened at all.

The potted history for tourists summarises the whole period as "oppressive communist rule". Freedom, in today's version of Bulgarian history, is the "short period" between the end of Ottoman rule in 1878 and 1945. "Liberation" now refers to the ousting of the Ottomans, not the victory of the communists. Where the acme of cultural influence was formerly Russian, everything of note in Sofia today is now Austro-Hungarian or Byzantine.

Today's tour starts with the ancient basilica of St George, dating from around AD400 and now restored just enough to illustrate that it had another life under the Ottomans as a mosque. Around the corner is the presidential palace, guarded by soldiers flamboyantly dressed in red, white and black. The massive Communist Party blocks now house a department store and the Sofia Sheraton, in Independence Square as it's now known. Lenin has been supplanted by "Sophia", a modernist statue with an owl (unfortunately misidentified by the guide as an eagle) on her outstretched arm. The column on which she stands is, naturally, rather taller than Lenin's erstwhile plinth.

Every other street seems to bear the name of a saint or a bishop. The two names that dominated the later communist years - the party leader, Todor Zhivkov, and his deputy, Milko Balev - do not figure; not in the topography, not in the newspapers, not in conversation. And Dimitrov's mausoleum? It was blown up almost four years ago, at the third attempt, after a week of popular hilarity and scorn. It stood on that now spacious square. Just behind the Bavarian beer tent.

One of the great cultural distinctions is how cities advertise, organise and fit out their public loos. The Americans say it straight. The local company for the Washington DC area, with its many outdoor public events, is Don's Johns, the name proudly emblazoned on each cabin. Paris pioneered the unisex loo and introduced those natty coin-operated facilities that are so capricious about letting you out. Sofia, though, has taken privatisation to parts that other cities have failed to reach. As you tramp through the Zhenski Bazaar, a large, rambling market that winds in three rows of stalls down a street named Roman Wall, you chance upon a bright yellow tent - between green vegetables and handbags - that looks for all the world like a fortune-telling booth.

Not so; this is the market's privately owned and operated public loo, with a little turnstile, an attendant and - I hope - a direct connection to the sewer. All spic and span for 20 stotinki (about 6p); half the cost of an ice-cream.